Another case for the news wiki

From Steve Myers’ interview with Jimmy Wales, published yesterday:

People do often come to Wikipedia when major news is breaking. This is not our primary intention, but of course it happens. The reason that it happens is that the traditional news organizations are not doing a good job of filling people in on background information. People come to us because we do a better job at meeting their informational needs.

Jason Fry adds further analysis today in a piece about rethinking sports reporting:

It’s a quietly devastating indictment of journalism. And Wales is absolutely right, for reasons explored very capably a couple of months back by Matt Thompson. Arrive at the latest newspaper story about, say, the health-care debate and you’ll be told what’s new at the top, then given various snippets of background that you’re supposed to use to orient yourself. Which is serviceable if you’ve been following the story (though in that case you’ll know the background and stop reading), but if you’re new you’ll be utterly lost — you’ll need, to quote Thompson, “a decoder ring, attainable only through years of reading news stories and looking for patterns”. On Wikipedia, breaking news gets put into context — and not in some upside-down format that tells you the very latest development that may or may not affect the larger narrative before it gives you the basics of that narrative so you can understand what that news means.

Along these lines, Wikipedia was the third place I looked for information after hearing about the swine flu outbreak last April; the first blog post I read and stories provided by the New York Times iPhone application proved inadequate.

How should a news wiki be executed? I have my ideas but the only real way to find out is to experiment.


Steven Walling November 17, 2009 Reply

I’m really glad that this caught your eye too. The ideas in those comments hit me like a ton of bricks today.

As you know I’m pretty hardcore into wikis and Wikipedia, but I hadn’t considered that it was simply the way information was presented — you could call it encyclopedia-style news — that was what drew readers to Wikipedia for breaking events.

If it’s true that people really do prefer Wikipedia-style writing on news to the standard journalistic format of writing, then the news business is in even deeper trouble than anyone currently thinks. Retraining an entire industry to write stories differently is a much more difficult task than dreaming up a new business model.

Michael Andersen November 17, 2009 Reply

I really, really like that Thompson essay about the need for evergreen “decoder ring” content. And newspaper guy Steve Yelvington guesses (persuasively) that half of all readers couldn’t make heads or tails of a random hard-news story in their local paper. To the casual reader, most newspaper content is monkey screech.

But Steven, I disagree with your second paragraph. I don’t think people inherently prefer encyclopedia-style news to breaking news. I think they prefer encyclopedia news to breaking news on subjects they haven’t been following.

The dominant format for most profitable online news outlets — the blog — is even monkey-screechier than a newspaper. Just as the “latest news” format made sense for newspapers in 1940, when everybody made daily appointments with their only source of new information, it currently makes sense for niche blogs that appeal to relatively small audiences of highly motivated readers.

So Wikipedia and other encyclopedia-style news outlets will no more doom newspapers than they’ll doom TechCrunch. Instead, they’ll continue to offer an adjacent service to an otherwise under-served audience. They’ll be the only prayer that most people will have for keeping up with events they find slightly interesting. (Like, say, federal health care reform.)

Finally, I don’t really think it’ll be that hard for the news business as a whole to retrain workers in the ways of encyclopedia-style information. It might be hard for any given institution to do so (at least in a profitable way) but I’m pretty sure startups will fill the skill gap very gracefully.

Michael Andersen November 17, 2009 Reply

By the way: Note that the standard journalistic format of local TV news is simply to ignore all stories that require context. It’s something new every day, because local TV viewers are even less loyal than local newspaper readers. I suspect that’s the way it’ll always be for general-interest media in an age of cheap distribution.

Michael Andersen November 17, 2009 Reply

Oh, and note also that I’m not arguing newspapers aren’t doomed. They are, at least in their current format. I just don’t think that’s a huge problem for the news business.

Leave a Reply